The Chemistry of Politics

Third Parties Attempt to Cleanse a Corroded Political System

Although there aren't exactly Bunsen burners and graduated cylinders roaming the halls of our nation's Capitol, chemical processes help to explain the dynamics of American politics.

Even though a two-party equation was not directly prescribed by the Founding Fathers, it has nevertheless developed into a simple mechanism that compensates for changes in public opinion. By shifting to the left or to the right, it is possible to reach a new equilibrium between Democrats and Republicans.

Despite this two-party legacy, changing conditions make a new political chemistry not only possible, but probable. In fact, the political influence that will shape the 1996 election, and help mold the emerging policy agenda of the new century, will likely come from strengthened third-party movements. Quite simply, third-party pressure can help reform our two-party system.

When Ross Perot entered the 1992 Presidential race and seized nearly 20 percent of the popular vote, he demonstrated--if not created--a new formula for third-party politics. Perot showed how one person with immense financial resources can frame the debate of an entire election and distill it to a core set of issues. The huge national deficit and soaring national debt were recognized problems long before Perot declared his candidacy, but when the Texas billionaire focused his campaign (and his money) on the unbalanced budget, it attained national prominence. Subsequently, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates were forced to follow Perot's lead.

The ability to bring attention to forgotten issues and to influence debate is not a recently-discovered property of third parties. Over the course of American history, third parties have helped bring about reform in such areas as women's suffrage, the graduated income tax, and the direct election of senators. What made the Perot campaign unique, however, was that it illustrated how wealthy individuals aren't limited to serving merely as the cash cows of a third party--as were Frank Munsey and George Perkins in Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party. Instead, ambitious tycoons can actually run themselves, as third-party candidates for president. And even if they aren't able to win elections, they can wield significant influence over the substance of the new administration's policy agenda. Many egos are simply too large to pass up such an attractive prospect.


A wealthy political neophyte, as Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes demonstrated, will first test the waters of traditional party channels. But when this fails, these candidates--just as Perot did--may experiment with third-party alternatives. If this occurs, one or more third parties could be the beneficiary of a timely cash transfusion, giving it the means to place increasing pressure on Republicans and Democrats.

Decreasing party loyalty from candidates and voters alike will further evaporate the two-party political monopoly. More diversified candidates--fueled by more people entering the world of politics from fields other than law--are replacing career politicians. When such candidates enter the political arena without having risen through the political ranks, they bring with them more varied perspectives, and less party loyalty. The result is an increased willingness to consider third-party options.

Escalating polarization within both the Democratic and Republican parties is also contributing to the saturation of the two-party system. As traditional liberals react against so-called "New Democrats," while moderate Republicans attempt to neutralize the "Religious Right," more candidates and voters are becoming increasingly frustrated with their two options. This frustration can transform two-party inertia into third-party momentum.

Skeptics of third-party influence point out the difficulty of building a strong regional base, or tapping a burning emotional issue--both viewed as elements of third-party success. Our increased dependence on mass communications, however, has changed the need for such localized support. Instant satellite communications have made the entire country accessible to third-party candidates with deep pockets.

Ross Perot, for example, was able to address the American public without traditional media filters. Timely infomercials, town hall meetings, and television talk-show appearances sparked grass-roots efforts which got him on the ballot in all 50 states. Savvy media consultants, pollsters, and other political experts-for-hire have the know-how to rapidly build the necessary organizational structure. Then add to this mix new political tools such as 1-800-numbers, direct mail, and the Internet, and what results is a dramatic dilution of the effect of regional politics and party machinery.

As for the emotional issue necessary to energize third parties, we don't have to look very far. There already exists a passionate distrust in the political system, and a disdain for government's motives and decision-making abilities. The attempts of some Republicans and Democrats to respond by championing campaign finance reform and bureaucracy reduction have been ineffective. If the problem is the system itself, a third party gains legitimacy as a solvent for concentrated two-party bickering.

According to R. Clayton Mulford, chief counsel and campaign manager for Perot '92 (and a current Institute of Politics fellow), "the difference with the current third-party movement is that the driving force is the process. Government itself is the specific issue. People are tired of the political class and how politics works." And when Washington insiders such as New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley chastise the system, and hint at potential third-party possibilities, the need for this solvent gains additional credibility.

It still remains to be seen whether 1994 was actually a dramatic conservative revolution, or merely a protest against a corroded political system. If the nation as a whole ideologically favors conservative policies in fiscal matters, but disagrees operationally with the kinds of cuts being made--and perceives them as being made by a "mean-spirited" majority party--displeasure with the new Republican majority will escalate. And increasing numbers of Americans, tired of inefficient equilibrium shifts between Democrats and Republicans, will instead consider trying third-party solutions.

At the very least, the election of 1992 acclimated the American public to the concept of third parties and third-party candidates. Polls show that a majority of Americans want a third major political choice. That so many Americans would prefer Colin Powell running as a third-party candidate, separated from the traditional party platforms, is further evidence of the movement towards a new phase in our political evolution.

Waxing third-party vitality focuses a penetrating light on the state of our political system, and acts as a litmus test to measure whether the major parties are indeed accurate indicators of citizen demands. The chemistry is simple: If Republicans over-react by precipitously slashing too many popular programs, and if Democrats cannot synthesize ideas more in line with fiscal responsibility, a third party--with mega-funding as a catalyst--will create an entirely new political equation.

Benjamin R. Kaplan '99 has yet to recover from his A.P. Chemistry experience.